Last time I talked about Margret Atwood I talked about the way her fiction can feel almost at odds with itself, about how her characters seem always on the verge of awareness of their irreality. She’s got a meta-textual streak that, while not always obvious, seems always present. To be completely honest, that tendency kept me a bit a arm’s length from those other books of hers that I’ve read. I love her writing and I think she’s a grand storyteller, but I find that I am often so admiring of her intelligence that I can’t quite give myself up to the book.
The Blind Assassin is the story of an old woman reflecting on her life. Iris Chase Griffen is a sharp, brittle woman living in the graveyard of her own family’s extensive legacy. She is the daughter of a wealthy industrialist, and her home town is littered with monuments to faded glory and remnants of a collapsed empire. Her sister Laura is the renowned author of a beloved novel, posthumously published. Her daughter is gone, her granddaughter is gone, her husband and father and mother and sister and lover and nanny are all dead.
The book is presented as the work of Iris herself, and is interspersed with news clippings and what we take to be fragments of her sister’s novel, itself featuring a story-within-the-story: a golden-age style science fiction tale in which we finally meet the eponymous blind assassin. Reality nested within reality, fiction within fiction. Stories change on the whims of characters themselves invented, truth bends according to convenience, and we the reader are teased and spun about by hidden truths and twists of fate dangled before us like bright fishhooks.
In this novel Atwood takes all of her meta-fictional quirks and puts them right at the center of the story; they come roaring out of the background to envelope the whole of this expansive text. As a result, she crafts what I believe must be her masterpiece, and one of the finest books I’ve read in a very long time.
There are a staggering number of levels on which The Blind Assassin operates, and Atwood masters them all with such brilliance as to make it look a trifle. There’s enough here for a dozen great novels, and yet they work together with such synchronicity that they appear inseparable.
Of all Atwood’s novels (those which I’ve read, anyway) this is the one which I found the most intellectually rewarding, but it was also one of the most deeply felt books I’ve ever read. There’s a depth of emotional truth here that’s almost hard to take. Atwood captures with staggering clarity the pain of loss, lost love, lost opportunities, lost ideals. It’s a book that leaves you feeling simultaneously empty and filled to the brim. I can’t recommend it enough.
If there’s anything to complain about…
This was the part where I was going to list the aspects of the book that didn’t completely work for me, but now that I’m here I can’t think of anything. It’s a long book, and feels its length at times, but it’s one of those books which, when you finish it, you realize could not have been any shorter. Laura’s character feels at times a touch too odd, but then you remember that everything you’re reading comes through the lens of Iris, and she would of course have a skewed view of her odd sister dead for so many years.
This is a beautiful novel, cold and mysterious and entrancing and horrifying as new fallen snow over a battlefield.